Review: 2011 Kia Forte SX 5-Door; A Good Effort, Just Not Enough

 

I recently drove the 2011 Kia Forte SX 5-Door around for a week, and I learned that Kia has built a Korean Mazda3, I think.

Kia have no doubt been making a lot of radical changes in their lineups. But more so, they have actually been improving their cars. It’s been evident to me with the last 3 that they’ve sent me. The 2011 Kia Sportage was great, and so was the 2011 Kia Sorento. However, the 2011 Kia Optima was phenomenal. So great, in fact, my grandfather went and bought an SX turbocharged model for himself. But the real question is, can they make a small car that’s affordable, fun and easy on the eyes? You know, a Mazda3. Well with the Kia Forte 5-Door, I think they’re trying hard at it.

When looking at the Kia Forte in general you see that it’s an attractive young car. And I say young because it’s only been around since 2009, with the hatchback arriving on our shores for the first time as a 2011 car. When it first showed up in my driveway I remember thinking, “What a sexy little hatch. If only it had a turbo.” I still feel that way now, because this car is good, but could be a real menace to the Mazda3 if it wanted to be.

Engine:

Powering the Kia Forte are a choice of two motors, the standard EX car gets a 2.0-liter inline-4, making 156 hp and 144 lb-ft of torque. The SX, like I had, comes equipped with a 2.4-liter inline-4, with 173 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are a dual-overhead cam motors with 4 valves per cylinder, continuously variable valve timing (CVVT), along with an aluminum block and heads. Your pretty standard econo-car motor.

The one thing about the Kia Forte SX, though, is the power that’s on tap. You can feel, even at low RPM, the urgency of this engine. It wants to rev and have a good time. It’s a lively motor, which is always nice in a small hatchback such as this.

Styling:

As I’ve already said, the Forte 5-door is very attractive, and I think it’s very striking for something in the $20,000 range. However nice to look at it is, people mistook it for a Mazda3 from behind quite a bit, which is both nice and disconcerting at the same time. It’s good that people think the Kia Forte appears in-line with its main rival, but that’s also the worst part about it. People obviously think it’s a car it isn’t.

With that said, you can’t say that Kia hasn’t done a great job at making the Forte look appealing to people of all ages. I was getting compliments from people in their 20s all the way into their 80s on how well thought out the overall design was. I mean, look at those sexy taillights and that really cool looking diffuser. Tell me it doesn’t look sporty and fun to drive before you even get in it.

Driving:

This is where my love for the Kia Forte SX 5-door starts to dwindle a bit. While it’s great to look at, easy to get in and out of, it’s not so great to drive. It feels good and tight, however the seats don’t offer enough bolstering, and the driving position is a little weird. I was comfortable, don’t get me wrong, but I was just not happy with how far I was away from the pedals, then the wheel, then the pedals again, etc. I think if the gas pedal weren’t so light to push I’d be much happier. I felt as though I had to sit farther back as to not have so much pressure on the throttle.

I also felt the actual leather seating surfaces were a little too slippery when driving around corners. Apart from the lack of bolsters, I couldn’t seem to sit still every time I took any sort of turn.

The steering, however, felt like I had complete control. The wheel itself felt great, and the actual weight of the wheel was good, but I didn’t like the size and plasticy feeling of the wheel mounted shift paddles.

I wasn’t too happy with the gas mileage, either. While it wasn’t terrible, it was certainly not as good as the Ford Focus SE I had just after this car. At an average of 27.2 mpg city and highway, again, it’s not the worst, but seeing as which I was able to achieve 31 mpg for a 2 hour long drive down the highway, I think it could be better. With the Ford Focus I recently had, I stayed mostly in the city and 55-60 mph highways and was able to average just over 32 mpg total.

Interior:

Overall it’s worth the money you spend what with navigation, backup camera, bluetooth -although I heard complaints of hearing more wind and road noise than me from callers- and heated seats. The stereo could certainly use some pep, though. At low volumes it’s not that bad, but once you get on the highway and want to jam, the speakers turn into jelly instead.

As I said before in the driving section, the Kia Forte 5-door is comfortable and reacts well to bad road surfaces, but there just isn’t enough hug and hold in the seats. You tend to slide all over while you’re turning; more so when you’re driving in a spirited sense, but it’s still noticeable when driving regularly.

The seats and interior in general, look great with the red stitching. Unfortunately, though, the seats don’t match the sporty look the way I’d hoped.

Transmission:

The six speed automatic in the Kia Forte wagon I had was more than up to the task of shifting quick enough for fun driving, and even shifting down with enough rev matching to make you make you happy. I would have much rather had a manual, especially in a car so easy to drive around back roads. The automatic wasn’t too bad and provided smooth shifts, even allowing for decent timing in downshifts when in full auto mode.

Luggage Space:

Now this is where I’m very happy with the little Kia. A friend of mine just started back to college, and she could not fit her desk and bicycle in her Scion tC going back to her beachy college. So, RawAutos to the rescue, right? Well, I was a little fearful at the size of her desk, and I knew that she had a gigantic Beach Cruiser bike, so to say I was nervous about it all fitting is an understatement. Of course, whenever a pretty girls calls you when in need, you want to come through for her. Your guy friends? Eh, go rent a truck, dude.

When I got to her parents’ house to pick up her stuff her dad had her desk broken down enough, and my fears were unfounded. The bike, aluminum desk frame, glass top, my backpack and camera bag fit in the back without any issues.

In any form, the Forte 5-door is perfect for college kids going back to school. With better gas mileage than a crossover, it has similar luggage capacity.

In The End:

In the end, while I like the Kia Forte 5-door’s character and style, I can’t say I’d buy it over the Ford Focus or Mazda3 wagons. Those two vehicles just have the right blend of sporty behaviors with interior comforts. But we must note that this is Kia’s first real attempt at a proper 5-door that anyone would want to spend their hard earned dollars on. So having said that, I can say that while Kia should tweak the driving style and interior seats, leave the exterior perfection alone. You got the outside right, and the inside almost right.

I’d buy the Mazda3 over every car in its class, but the Kia Forte SX 5-door won’t make you feel less adequate. The Kia Forte SX also needs to be able to achieve well over 30 mpg on the highway without even trying (in standard EX trim you can get 36 mpg highway according to the EPA).

The Good:

The style of an Audi from Kia, again; Features and amenities will never have you second guess why you spent $23,640 on this car; This is a new Kia for a new customer; Tons of fun to drive around country roads.

The Bad:

Kia is still questioned by some; I was asked many times, “This is really a Kia?”; Spirited driving has you falling out of your seat; Spirited driving hijacks your wallet at the pump; Awkward seating positions; Gas mileage isn’t the best and could use some work.

The Ugly:

It’s almost good enough, but is barely better than the last generation Mazda3; You’ll have to convince people why you bought a Kia and not a Honda, Toyota, Mazda or Nissan.

The Truth:

Again, this ain’t the Kia of old, it’s quick, fun and leaves a smile on your face from behind the wheel; You’ll love the ease of folding the seats down and carrying whatever you like; Almost there, but Kia needs a few more years with the Forte before it’s worth the price of its rivals; Gas mileage could be better. Unfortunately, good looks don’t get the Forte 5-door far enough in this day and age.

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I'm a car, music, and Howard Stern aficionado. I also love planes, trains, anything to do with science and engineering, as well as politics. I'm working on my screenplays, TV shows, and a book or two. Stay tuned to when I'm really famous and even more awesome.

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  • William Hurley

    Hey – great review and photos – glad I found your blog! I’ve driven the Kia Soul through Zipcar, which has the same engine and slightly lesser output, and agree that it is a fun drive. Like you mentioned, Kia’s biggest problem will be convincing people that their brand is “cool”, which is going to be a tough road despite their great designs because of the bad first impression in the US in the late 90s (Sephia, Sportage, Spectra – yuck!). I think Kia’s current lineup is one of the best looking out there, especially the Sportage (I wrote an article a few months ago on my blog: http://youarewhatyoudrive.blogspot.com/2011/06/give-it-chance-kia-sportage.html), Optima, Rio, etc. I think Ford does a better interior than Kia, but I’m not as bullish on the Mazda 3, having also driven it through Zipcar (although it was the base sedan model). The 3 was peppy to drive, but felt “tinny” compared to the Soul. The 3 wagon is considerably better looking than the frumpy sedan.

  • Matt Clack

    First of all, your reviewing process is awesome. Secondly, I just bought my fully-equipped Forte 5-Door SX and I love it. While I agree with most of your points, I feel like you have to give props to the good looks, fantastic warranty and excellent price. My dealer came way under MSRP (something I thought would take more haggling) and KIA isn’t shy about making the switch. I traded in my 2003 VW Golf and I feel like I upgraded big-time! You’re definitely right about trying to convince people about why you chose a KIA. :)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the compliment, Matt. It’s a really great car in terms of looks and warranty, but like I said in the review, there were just those few things that I couldn’t get comfortable with. However, as I’ve always said, if you enjoy it and believe you got a good deal, then that’s all that matters. I’m glad you got the car, because it is a worthy car to buy. I’d love to see Kia keep their sales numbers up and do great in the future. So I know Kia would like me to thank you for them for purchasing the Forte and speaking so highly of it. Enjoy the looks. Feel free to e-mail pictures and your personal opinions on the car to josh@rawautos.com.